SEATTLE--George W. Bush says lots of nice things about President Nursultan Nazarbayev. On September 29, he portrayed the leader of Kazakhstan, who came to Washington for a state luncheon, as a "steadfast partner in the international war on terrorism." Nazarbayev, according to Bush and U.S. state-controlled media, is leading a transition to democracy and liberalizing his nation's economy. He's been lauded for privatizing old Soviet-era state industries and inviting foreign companies to invest in the exploitation of what may be the world's largest untapped oil reserves. Kazakhstan, Bush says, "now is a free nation."
It depends on what your definition of "free" is.
Considering that his Central Asian neighbors are ruled by megalomaniacal despots (Turkmenistan) and mass murderers (Uzbekistan), or disintegrating into anarchy and civil strife (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan), President Nazarbayev's regime appears relatively benign. But he's merely the best of a bad lot. Scratch the gloss of the gleaming energy-boom-funded skyscrapers rising over the Kazakh metropolises of Almaty and Astana, and it becomes clear that the United States is giving the red-carpet, 21-gun salute treatment to another right-wing dictator of the variety we propped up during the Cold War. Back then, selling out our democratic values undermined our credibility on human rights and provoked anti-Americanism. Today, the same policy is sowing the seeds of the next 9/11.
Nazarbayev, the Communist Party boss of the Kazakh S.S.R. at the time of the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, has been Kazakhstan's strongman since independence. He points to the 91 percent of the vote he received in the most recent presidential election as proof of his popularity, but international observers universally condemned the December 2005 vote as tainted by fraud and violence.
It would have been difficult to lose an election like this. Galimzhan Zhakianov, leader of the main opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) party, had been rotting in prison since 2002. Finally, early in 2005, Nazarbayev had the DVK banned entirely for "inciting social tension" and "extremism." A few weeks after promising to release evidence that Nazarbayev and his family were involved in oil-related corruption, Zamanbek Nurkadilov, a former Nazarbayev cabinet minister who joined the nation's sole remaining viable opposition party, For a Fair Kazakhstan (NAZ), was found dead at his home in Almaty, a pistol lying at his side.
Nurkadilov had been shot three times--twice in the chest and once in the head. Kazakh authorities ruled his death a suicide.
Even after he won another seven-year term, misfortune continued to befall Kazakhs who spoke out against Nazarbayev. On February 13, 2006, reported Radio Free Europe, the bodies of Nurkadilov's replacement as NAZ leader and four aides "were discovered on a desolate stretch of road outside Almaty...their bodies riddled with bullets and their hands bound behind their backs." Altynbek Sarsenbayev had recently announced his own intention to release proof of Nazarbayev and his cronies' misuse of oil revenues.
The government blamed five rogue officers of its KNB (ex-KGB) security service for the contract killing. No one believes the official story.
The Kazakh regime, which presents itself as the kinder, gentler face of Central Asian autocracy, has ruthlessly crushed attempts to curtail freedom of expression, a crucial building block of an open society. Journalists have been threatened, beaten and jailed. After the leading independent newspaper Respublika published an interview with a Russian politician that criticized Nazarbayev in May 2005, it was ordered closed. A printing house that agreed to publish a successor newspaper, Set-kz, was shuttered as well. The state Internet monopoly, controlled by one of Nazarbayev's daughters, blocks access to opposition and independent Web sites.
Since a presidential proclamation signed by President Bush in 2004 bans visits by corrupt foreign officials to the United States, Nazarbayev--embroiled in a "Kazakhgate" influence peddling scandal scheduled for federal court later this fall--was legally ineligible to come to Washington last week. Consultant and lobbyist James Giffen will soon face charges that he funneled more than $78 million in bribes from his energy company clients, most of it to Nazarbayev and his former prime minister. According to the Justice Department, Giffen also gave Nazarbayev's wife fur coats and a snowmobile, and even paid Nazarbayev's daughter's tuition at George Washington University. U.S. officials call Kazakhgate one of the largest violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in history.
According to a reliable source, high-ranking White House officials are pressuring the Justice Department to drop the case.
Kazakhstan's geopolitical importance is obvious. It is the largest producer of Caspian Sea oil, borders Russia, China and the other Central Asian states, and has granted the U.S. Air Force landing rights at Almaty's airport for operations in Afghanistan. Moreover, it's a rare "friendly" country in the Muslim world: Kazakhstan is the only Central Asian republic to have sent troops to Iraq.
In all the ways that matter, however, Nazarbayev presides over a police state that is indistinguishable from his more notorious neighbors, such as Islam Karimov, president of Uzbekistan. Karimov ordered and personally supervised the massacre of at least 700 demonstrators in the Uzbek city of Andijon. The May 13, 2005 incident, known in the region as "Uzbekistan's Tiananmen Square," prompted criticism from the Bush Administration and thousands of anti-Karimov refugees to seek political asylum in neighboring republics.
Kazakhstan recently deported eight Uzbek refugees granted official asylum-seeker status by the United Nations to Uzbekistan, whose military police are infamous for boiling political prisoners to death.
Nazarbayev appeared at a joint press conference with Karimov in March 2006, nearly a year after the Andijon massacre.
"Of course, we regret everything happened [at Andijon]," said Nazarbayev. "However, it should be said that another end [i.e., not killing the demonstrators] would have destabilized now the whole region."
Destablization might have given Kazakstan's 15 million citizens, 99 percent of whom live in poverty while Nazarbayev steals the oil and gas beneath their feet, a chance to liberate themselves. Sadly and once again, the U.S. government is siding with a dictator over the people.